Friday, March 20, 2015

Christianity at the Movies: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (16 June 2014)

The background here is my teaching Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange at a university with a high percentage of conservative Catholic students, leavened with a fair number of born-again sorts who'd say things like (this is an actual quotation, from a very nice guy), "Well, I used to be Catholic, but now I'm Christian."

Anyway, I taught the novel, and Stanley Kubrick's film, and got a good deal of religious-based resistance to both, for their sex and violence. Curious, I asked my students if they were bothered by the novel's being heretical.

They weren't. 

I noted that I wasn't getting esoteric: in his commentary on Clockwork Orange in its various forms — which was in our copy of the novel — Burgess just comes out and says directly that his 21-chapter version embodies the "Pelagian Heresy" that human beings of our own accord can choose the good and, contra to St. Augustine of Hippo and orthodox Christianity, don't need Grace to choose good and do it. 

My students were uninterested.

Come on, I said, more or less: "By faith and faith alone shall you be saved," and by the wrong faith shall you be damned, and Burgess is coming right out and saying he's pushing heresy.


The problem with the novel, and more so the film, was the sex (with later classes, sexism), and a bit of heresy they thought no big deal — especially given that a fair number of my students seem to have been sturdy Pelagians, even after twelve years of rigorously orthodox Catholic schooling. 

Okay, interesting ideas of Christianity here and undoubtedly progress from the days of Augustine's pronouncing anathemas against Pelagius and Pelagians and later Christians' burning one another at the stake for getting wrong some details on Original Sin, just what you're eating when you take communion, whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father, or — well, or all the other theological disputes that led to impressive body counts.

Still, given those body counts, it's intriguing that what concerned my students and their elders was fictional and cinematic violence and, way more so, sex.

This is clearer with the sweet little sequel to DreamWorks Animation's 2010 HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, the 2014 release HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 — and the mild to-do over the easily-missed revelation that one of the comic Vikings, Gobber the Belch, is gay.

As in Beowulf, say, all the characters in DRAGON are pagans and, in orthodox Christianity, damned. As in Beowulf, we get a Viking funeral, if little else specifically pagan save one brief reference to the gods, unspecified in both but audibly plural in DRAGON 2. Unlike, Beowulf, though, we don't get the idea of that paganism as "the hope of the heathen" and that Christians looking back at their heroic pagan ancesotors should see a devastating but also kind of neat issue about what to do "in that day of this life," after Christ but before you've heard about Christianity. Beowulf practiced total, disinterested heroism with no hope of reward or lasting accomplishment in this life — his good deeds get undone by other men — and a good chance that being the best man of your time still means that you can die absurdly and spend the life to come burning in Hell (or hanging out in Limbo, not suffering but still damned). 

DRAGON 2 is a sweet movie and a rather somber comedy — a happy ending but there is that funeral — and the paganism of the protagonists is just accepted. What somewhat puzzles me is that the paganism is accepted by the film makers and the audience and, apparently, or at least so I'll bet, by Christians who're going to get upset that one of the characters might be gay.

These characters are pagans, people! If orthodox Christianity is correct, they are all going to Hell! Period! No matter what they do! So if you're a serious Protestant, Augustinian, Calvinist, Puritan Christian, don't worry a lot if some of the DreamWorks guy-Vikings are getting it on with each other even as their real-world ancestors were probably doing. And if you don't think they're going to Hell for misbelief, maybe you should rethink any notions that God much cares how they direct their Earthly loves, or even just their sex lives

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